Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cult Video Interlude, Part 8: "The Old New Atheist"

Probably because of the late, great Robert Anton Wilson's dismissive attitude toward Madalyn Murray O'Hair, I have never really wanted to research her. He likened her to the Pope because of her intellectual rigidity, only of a godless sort. Everything I have read about her makes her sound like a cult leader. Was she?

I have only very recently developed an interest in her, and by "recently" I mean in the last 30 minutes. Atheist organizations and atheism as a kind of counter-religion have never appealed to me. Skepticism is one thing, atheism another.

But now I have watched the first clip of Godless in America on the YouTube (below). If she was a cult leader, it's partly because of the good thing she did by pursuing the ban on compulsory school prayer in public schools and winning her case at the SCOTUS. That alone is more than Sam Harris, PZ Myers, and Daniel Dennett combined have done for the atheist cause.

She was even a better insult-comic than is PZ Myers. And these days when Sam Harris calls a communion wafer a "cracker," it's really tame when compared to how O'Hair referred to the cross (at 0:32 in the clip below). She seemed depressed and even stooped to being a Communist before finding meaning in life through battling pervasive Christian social domination. But I can forgive her Communism, because she was truly a unique American, even if Wilson happened to be correct about her dogmatism.

UPDATE 12/24/10: Egad! I watched all six segments of Godless in America on the YouTube. I had not known that her life had such a grisly end. I had read on the pages of Skeptic about her mysterious disappearance, along with her younger son and adopted daughter (and actual granddaughter), but the story behind the disappearance is one of those true-crime creep-outs. Depressing. Incidentally, her elder son became a vociferously born-again Christian.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Best Cameo: Black Randy and the Metrosquad

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (1982) was a favorite of USA Network in the early 80s. I think I saw this on Night Flight back then. I recall one line from the movie when a Rastafarian roadie says something like "Everyone wants to live forever, but no one wants to die." That seemed insightful to me at the time, and I guess it still rings true. I remember virtually nothing else and certainly not this oddball scene in the above clip. I don't know the context, but was Black Randy attacked for not being sleek and rockin' enough? Note the totally punk-rock Israeli flag draped in front of the stage.

Multiple Choice: This scene proves that Black Randy is the missing link between ___________ and Jack Brewer.

A. Neil Diamond
B. The Turtles
C. Buddy Holly
D. Welcome Back, Kotter

Friday, December 17, 2010

Cult Video Interlude, Part 7: "God's Really, Really Angry Man"

[Undergoing scheduled maintenance.]

Cult Video Interlude, Part 6: "Heavy Breathers"

[NOTE: I am not sure why I deleted my original post on breatharianism. It might have been an accident. I certainly don't care about offending breatharians, who seem to be anorexics who rationalize their disorder/suffering in spiritualistic fantasy. I originally found it fascinating that anyone would actually believe a breatharian never eats (Jasmuheen admits as much, claiming that not eating can be boring sometimes--but oh, so holy).  I quickly grew to find, however, the whole breatharian thing not only utterly vacuous but, when considering the death reported in the Australian 60 Minutes clip, ultimately depressing. Nevertheless, for the sheer jaw-dropping lunacy of it all, here is the clip re-posted. Now, on to other cultish clownery!]

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Warrior Genes and the Spoken Word

From a coworker, I learned that Henry Rollins is the host of a recent National Geographic special about the so-called "warrior gene." Biological researchers have found the Monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene to be one significant determiner of violent behavior in males, or at least in 30% of the male population. It is linked, for example, to gang membership and even more so to those who are the most violent members of gangs.

Let me add here that upon learning about MAOA, I immediately saw the ramifications of this research for criminal defense in violent crimes. Sure enough, it's already been happening. Check out "Can Your Genes Make You Murder?" from NPR here, where evidence of a high-risk version of MAOA in a defendant's DNA (mixed with violent abuse in his childhood) made the difference between him getting prison for a murder instead of the death penalty. Of course, the prosecutor said it's "too early" to use this evidence. I cynically predict that many prosecutors will never stop saying it's "too early" to use this evidence. But that's just my former criminal defense lawyer self talking. It will be more and more interesting as time goes on. That is, if the U.S. populace will value science, any science, in a few years' time.

But back to Rollins. I showed my coworker this video here of Rollins going all "creepy crawl" in '83 after some German lunkhead pitched a full can of lager at his noggin. (It interrupts "Black Coffee," too.) Based on his speech to the crowd, I don't think he has the gene. The can connects with head at 0:10, so don't blink or you'll miss it:

Sometime in 1987,  a rock chum of mine and I went to see a Jane's Addiction acoustic set at Scream, which was then in that hotel across from MacArthur Park whose name escapes me. Rollins opened with one of his spoken-word readings. Afterwards, there was a kind of intermission, and he stood onstage with his back to the audience, talking to some young lady. He had his hands behind his back.

I don't know why, but I had a AA battery in my pocket, and I decided to weird Rollins out. I walked up behind him and stealthily inserted said battery into the curled-up palm of his hand. I then quickly returned to my front-row seat.

He didn't budge.

After about 20 seconds or so, the sensation that something small and smooth was in hand must have finally reached his consciousness. With a jerk, he suddenly brought his hand in front of him and looked down at the little double-A battery. Then he spun around and glared at the audience. As he did so, he lifted his arm and threw the battery down on the stage next to him. It went bouncing off somewhere. Visibly pissed off, he scanned the people standing around and those in their seats, including me. I didn't feel scared, but his anger surprised me. I thought he'd laugh, like "This is trippy. How did did this happen?" Not a chance.

I withheld my chuckling until he turned away again. Does such a reaction a warrior gene-bearer make? I don't think so. If he had the gene, he'd have picked someone to beat the crap out of right then and there. Maybe even me. Not every angry young man is a genetically programmed thug.

But I always suspected Rollins was probably a big softy inside, a feeling confirmed when I saw him introduce a poetry reading at Beyond Baroque by one Ellyn Maybe some years back. A bespectacled Rollins (her publisher) spoke very highly of her and her unabashedly hippie, peacenicky, beatnicky, surrealist poetry. If only I'd had another battery to give him then, I think he might have appreciated it.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

He Sang For Us

Once after church on a Sunday in the 70s, my dad took my sister and me to a party of some sort for children at what seemed to be a pizza parlor or a theater. It was an unexpected L.A. outing for the two of us. The place was dark. There were picnic tables set up where we ate cake with a couple of dozen other kids. There was entertainment. One of the entertainers came out, dressed in a coat and a cravat. He stared at us. Then he played the "Mighty Mouse" cartoon theme song from a record on a little turntable next to him. He sang only "Here I come to save the day!" Yes, you know who it was. None of the children laughed. I recall feeling confused and uncomfortable, but it stood out in my memory. Someone thought it would be great for kids. In the early 90s, when I finally watched an Andy Kaufman special on VHS cassette in which he performed the same routine, I was floored. By that time, I found it hilarious.

In hindsight, I wish he had peformed this for us, too:

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Hallowe'en Creepy Crawly Monster Movie List

Here are 12 of my favorite monster movies, reviewed in two sentences max each:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Cesare the somnambulist is a human monster, but a monster just the same.  This exponent of German expressionism uses painted sets and stagey acting to create a dream-like alternate-universe.

Nosferatu (1922). F.W. Murnau's interpretation of the vampire narrative created what is at least as powerful a vampiric icon as Bela Lugosi's almost a decade later. Consider this the prequel to Salem's Lot.

The Thing From Another World (1951). The first take at what would become John Carpenter's great movie below. James Arness plays the infamous "carrot monster."

The Blob (1958). I must've seen this a dozen times as a kid (or so it seemed), but all I remember is the bulbous, jellied blob pulsing out of the meteorite and also glomming onto a screaming man's arm. Need I remember anything else to love this movie?

War of the Gargantuas (1966). This is how I knew Russ Tamblyn's name when I was a kid. When two giant sasquatch-like brothers destroy each other and Tokyo, you might be moved to tears.

Night of the Living Dead (1968). The original George A. Romero version: best social-commentary zombie flick to date. "If you have a gun, shoot 'em in the head. That's a sure way to kill 'em. If you don't, get yourself a club or a torch. Beat 'em or burn 'em. They go up pretty easy."

Jaws (1975). Best "monster movie?" Just plain best movie.

The Thing (1982). The elusive, tentacled, wildly shape-changing, virus-like alien is a genuinely mysterious creature in a very brooding and atmospheric movie. My favorite of John Carpenter's work.

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996). A must-see for Marlon Brando's performance alone and, believe me, nothing else. The inspiration for Austin Powers's mini-me character.

Starship Troopers (1997). Who doesn't want to see giant machine-like bugs get blown apart and spew green globs? Like The Thing above and Cloverfield below, this is a combo of sci-fi and monster movie.

Pan's Labyrinth (2006). Egad! I fell asleep watching this, and then woke up, startled, right in the middle of the scene where the naked old goblin-thing-with-eyeballs-in-its-hands slowly chases after a little girl. Apparently Guillermo del Toro's remaking the uber-creepy Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, too.

Cloverfield (2008). See the hipsters get plunged into alien-led Armageddon right in the middle of Manhattan. Until District 9 came along in 2009, this would be the most innovative sci-fi storytelling of the last ten years.

For more reviews, might as well just go to Glenn Danzig's 1983 Flipside movie reviews.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Heavy Metal, New Wave, and Bowie

Why do I read any Youtube comments? They're usually just angry and distracting. To wit, dudes complain about the talk-show longhairs who interrupt this video of U2 in '78. But those guys are what make this little clip worth at least two viewings. Them and the footage of Bono's decidedly non-angular hair. And the song "The Fool" is, by the way, a real keeper. The Warsaw influence is apparent and would, in perfect stride, give way to a Joy Division (Unknown Pleasures) influence on 1980's Boy. Somehow, this anxiously good song was made the same year as this other clunker. I have always been a fan of the early pre-Boy singles of U2 (and I make no bones about liking almost all of their 80s output, too). But "The Fool" is new to my ears and worthy of attention.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Not Everything is Possible

To follow up on my post about Deepak Chopra's sketchy connection to physics, here's an interview with theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss over at Cosmic Log. It's called "How to Spot Quantum Quackery", which is exactly how I think of movies like What the Bleep Do we Know? or The Secret (I slogged through them both, which is to say I gave both of them a fair hearing). Books like The Secret and the rest of the New Age books/magazines that I have perused seem the same: as insubstantial as they are influential.

People like Chopra sell the idea that you can alter DNA and the rest of physical reality with just your thoughts. Krauss has a great philosophical answer to that. "Not everything is possible," he says, "That's what makes the world so interesting."

He goes on with a logical scientific answer, too:
We are connected to the world by many things: by light and sound and heat. But we behave like classical objects for a reason: We're big, we have lots of particles, they interact. All the weirdness of quantum mechanics gets washed out on the scale that we experience. That's why we experience a classical world.
After that, I recommend reading Victor Stegner's "The New Spirituality" over at the Huffington Post. Chopra really believes, and has said, "The physical world is a creation of the observer."

"Do you really believe that?" asks Stegner. His one-word answer: "Don't." Chopra knows something about quantum mechanics. He clearly has some familiarity with nonlocality and the uncertainty principle. It's fascinating stuff. One thing I know better than Chopra, though, is that Richard Feynman knew, and Victor Stegner, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Lawrence Krauss know a lot more than Chopra does. I'll rely on their analyses to learn actual science.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Down-to-Earth Buddhism

Lately, I've been running across links, either in print or through audio, between modern rationalism and Buddhism. Perennial Shroud of Turin-buster Joe Nickell offers his interpretation of Tibetan sand mandalas over at the Center for Inquiry. I had the opportunity to watch Tibetan monks in the process of making one of these, too, many years ago. Breathtaking is the word for it, especially when I returned days later to watch the very moving ceremony in which they sweep all the intricate colored sands together into one mound and then pour it into a single clear vessel. Despite Joe's seeming apologies for the monks' own magical thinking, he hits upon a universal meaning of the ritual: It's a "metaphorical balm for our troubled world."

Also, the good folks over at Reasonable Doubts podcast have begun a three-parter on Buddhism, featuring interviews with Stephen Batchelor. Batchelor had impact in the Buddhist world years back with his Buddhism Without Beliefs, a book I am presently reading, which attempts to whittle away overly complex metaphysics from Buddhism's inherent agnosticism. In his latest book, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, he amps up the freethinking aspects of Buddhism. The first of the doubting guys' interviews with him is a great introduction to Buddhism itself. Even Christopher Hitchens gives Batchelor's book a plug.

Another recent interview with Batchelor over at Buddhist Geeks (he's making the rounds) is worth a read. He gives a great summation of the "imponderables," which were metaphysical questions that Siddartha Gautama (the Buddha) dismissed as irrelevant:

Now, one of the things that I think is central to the Buddha’s teaching is that he is extremely suspicious of metaphysics and there are of course these famous questions that he refused to answer: Does the universe have a beginning? Does it have an end? Is it finite? Is it infinite? Are mind and body the same or are mind and body two separate things? And then the last four: Does the Tathagata exist after death or does he not exist after death? Now this latter one, I think, is being tampered with slightly. I think it’s almost certainly the case that what the Buddha meant was “Does one continue after death or does one not continue to exist after death?” Tathagata was simply being the way he referred to himself. So in other words, it just means one.

Now I think if you put those unanswered questions together, you’d get a picture of what, even today, remained as the big questions of life and death, and they’re just as unanswered now, by science, as they were at the Buddha’s time. But in any case, the Buddha wasn’t interested in rejecting these ideas because they were somehow wrong. But he was concerned with people getting involved with that kind of speculation because it would lead one away from the actual practice of the path....
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Big Quantum Hijack

Here's a clip of faith healer Deepak Chopra claiming that "aficionados of science" have "hijacked" quantum physics from the New Age! Richard Dawkins' brief response is priceless:

Sunday, August 29, 2010

"I Don't Know if We're in a Garden"

This counts in my book as one of the dreamiest pop numbers ever recorded. The ages of the Flamingos in this video may not quite match their ages in the original recording, but that just adds to the dream-effect. I played guitar in a little-known theatrical art-band called Pancake Haus in the early 90s, and we did this song. It made me very, very happy. Still does.

My love must be a kind of blind love
I can't see anyone but you.

Are the stars out tonight?
I don't know if it's cloudy or bright
I only have eyes for you, dear.

The moon may be high
But I can't see a thing in the sky,
'Cause I only have eyes for you.

I don't know if we're in a garden,
or on a crowded avenue.

You are here
So am I
Maybe millions of people go by,
But they all disappear from view.
And I only have eyes for you.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Voivod, Pepsi, et Technologie

Voivod's Nothingface is one of the unsung albums of the last 30 or so years. It's one of those great from-out-of-left-field albums: meta-metal, like a lost SST metal album that never found it's way to South Bay. Dig the snotty-sounding punk rock vocals, gritty bass (worthy of Tracy Pew), and the jagged guitar work, all wrapped up in a fairly visionary "prog-metal" package that thankfully has none of the baggage that goes with that genre (think of Voivod as the anti-Dream Theater). 

Nothing Voivod did before or after Nothingface equaled its glory, but some of the psychedelic and pop infusions of Angel Rat were dreamy and inventive, and The Outer Limits has some of the same. Their interpretations of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd set them apart even further from metal cliche ("Astronomy Domine" and "The Nile Song").

The above clip is off Canadian T.V. (thank you, Pepsi Co.). It's around the time Nothingface came out ('89). The initial interview with a kind of Canadian Martha Quinn lasts a couple of minutes, and the performance that follows is well worth the viewing. They pulled it off live.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

"The 'Gator Lost His Mind"

"We Can Now Reveal And Actually Touch The Next Day"

"Art is for the Spirit"

In high school, I wrote an essay on the art of Jonathan Borofsky. The essay coincided with his big show in downtown L.A. at the old Temporary Contemporary. In my mind "Art is for the Spirit" was central to his work. His multimedia presentations (painting, sculpture, video, kinetic, object) still strike me as having a profoundly humanizing influence. Funny enough, the one piece I have usually liked least is the one I come in contact with most: the clown dancer in Venice Beach. Clown imagery has always struck me as too facile, too much a shorthand for "weird." But lately I've appreciated the clown dancer more, especially since my 4-year old saw it the other day and couldn't stop laughing. Now I really, really appreciate it. It's whimsical but it's jarring. And it's public. Needed: more whimsical yet jarring public art, and more public art. Period. I love the mandala-like forms he painted in the 90s using the word "God." I almost wish I still had that high-school essay.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"Shake Hands With Dr. Hands"

Somehow, Jeffrey Vallance is able to make the incredibly awkward social interaction seem cordial and productive. Read his book of essays about meeting the King of Tonga and the Icelandic Prime Minister for Vallance's idiosyncratic yet absorbing obsessions. (I couldn't find a link to it online.) In this clip he pits Stiv Bators against Dr. Hands (a Christian evangelist) in a "debate" that quickly becomes Dr. Hands attempting to get Bators to accept Christ as his savior. MTV had some potential. A long, long time ago.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Thoughts on Theodicy

No one can can prevent all misfortune from happening to loved ones, nor can anyone make anyone else do the right thing all the time. But no person is omnipotent. So, what's God's excuse? It is Epicurus who is usually credited with first formulating the perennial "problem of evil" that theologians and many philosophers have had to confront ever since:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

The above paradox is often used as a refutation of the existence of God. Nonetheless, believers do not just fold their cards and say, "I am defeated by your paradox." They tend to wrestle with the problem. Many even come up with solutions. For example, Leibniz argued that we live in the "best of all possible worlds," with emphasis on the word possible. (It's a phrase that should be familiar to any reader of Voltaire's Candide in the character Dr. Pangloss, a parody of Leibniz.) Leibniz even coined the useful term "theodicy" as a reference to the philosophical attempt to defend the inherent benevolence and/or existence of God despite all the evil in the world.

Personally, I do not find Leibniz's solution satisfying. The idea that we might live in a bargain-basement moral universe, but that it's also the best God can do, is pretty depressing. Or maybe it's just dark humor. H.L. Mencken did say the best way to explain all existence is to think of God as a low comedian.

My real question, though, is this: Has anyone ever resolved the paradox of evil in a satisfactory way?

For starters, the atheist response cuts out the paradox by removing "God" from the whole business. Fine. But that does not necessarily resolve why there is evil in the world. One atheist response is deterministic, another existential. Neither of those make the universe and the misfortunes that befall humanity seem any less absurd. Then again, maybe evil isn't supposed to be anything but absurd.

For those of us who like to wrestle with paradoxes, I would offer the following four explanations of evil as some of the best that religious philosophy has to offer. They are not airtight explanations, but what is? They are all, at the very least, great thought-experiments. This is also not an exhaustive list. I may add to it in a follow-up.

1. The Gnostic. If Leibniz's overly optimistic theodicy rests at one end of the believers' spectrum, the ancient Gnostics exist at the other end. In the early centuries of the Common Era, Gnosticism in several varieties sprung up around the Mediterranean as a fascinating combo of Christian theology and Hellenistic mysticism. The Persian mystic Mani (third century CE) was another major exponent of a gnosticism that might have had an influence on the medieval Cathars and Bogomils in Europe. There was even a Jewish gnosticism in the medieval Kabbalah. What almost all these sects shared was a dualistic view of the universe to explain evil: physical reality was created not by a loving God, but rather by an imperfect and perhaps evil demiurge. The real, ethereal God is totally separate from all empirical phenomena but can be accessed through mystical ritual and practice. Knowledge (a.k.a. "gnosis") of the real God will lead to liberation of the soul. Christian Gnostic sects obviously viewed Jesus as the embodiment in some form or another of the real God.

2. The Pagan Neoplatonist. Plotinus was a philosopher in ancient Alexandria in the third century CE. He was a Neoplatonist by our modern standards, in that he sought to apply the teachings of Plato, especially Plato's theory of forms. Simply put (perhaps too simply), Plotinus merely saw evil as imperfection. The material world of Being could never measure up to the ideal world beyond Being. Therefore, anything here that we consider evil, from human cruelty to rotting plants, is really a kind of ugliness that we know would not exist in the ideal world of forms. The One that is the source of all things (i.e., the Prime Mover and Sustainer that is beyond Being and non-Being) contains no such ugliness or blemish. This all implies a kind of mysticism similar to that of the Gnostics because perfection is beyond rational comprehension. All we know is this world, except for what we might see in some mystical union with The One, which Plotinus was reported to have done four times in his life.

3. The Existential Christian. Nicolai Berdyaev was a former Communist (in Russia, no less) who, some years before the Russian Revolution, converted from atheism to Russian Orthodox Christianity. He eventually relocated in Paris and developed a fascinating Christian existentialism in which humanity enters a relationship with the Divine through creativity. Like any good existentialist, he theorized about the meaning of freedom. "Freedom is God," he wrote. As for evil, then, God is still omnibenevolent and reigns supreme over all existence, but God has no control over one thing and one thing only: nothingness. Evil as it appears in the world is simply that which comes out of chaos. I find this the most novel Christian approach to evil, as it removes from the equation confused leftovers of dualistic mythology about Jesus battling Satan in some weird cosmic war in which we in our remote corner of the universe somehow play a central part. Instead, evil remains an absurdity, and God remains worthy of worship. Berdyaev has his cake and eats it, too. What I like even more is that evil is not a consequence of freedom, as the free-will version of theodicy puts forth. Berdyaev had a positive view of human freedom.*

4. The Rational Optimist. Marilyn McCord Adams is an Episcopal priest and philosopher. Unlike Mani, Berdyaev, and Plotinus, she is a modern contemporary. She is alive! In a nutshell, she circumvents the whole paradox of theodicy and avoids asking why is there evil. Instead, she emphasizes that evil exists, and how can we respond to it? She says that the rational response to horrendous evil is pessimism. We should not expect a witness to genocide to be Dr. Pangloss. However, if one should wish to have an optimistic view of life despite horrendous evil and still remain rational, one needs to believe in some transcendent good (or God himself). Only an ineffable transcendence that is good can offer a rational reason for a human to see life's glass as half full. You could view this as a mere reworking of the old "God works in mysterious ways" rationalization of evil. But what I appreciate about it is that she doesn't justify suffering and defends pessimism! That seems quite compassionate. To live a good life, neither the pessimist nor the optimist should waste too much time wondering "Why me?"

*The one big drawback to Berdyaev's idea is that a god who cannot control nothingness might be a limited god. As Epicurus would ask, "Then why call him God?"

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Epicureanism and Buddhism

Last night, I noticed we owned a brand of food processor called the "epicure" model. Now, when I see the word "epicure," I think of Epicurus, Greece's third century BCE sage of the good life. But the name of the processor reflects, of course, the pervasive conception of Epicureanism: that it's basically the foodie philosophy. I hesitate to call it a "misconception" of the original philosophy of Epicurus, though, since the foodies at least acknowledge that pleasure in life is good, and so did he.

The actual philosophy that Epicurus espoused, however, went deeper than merely having good taste. That is a somewhat watered-down version of what his ideas were. To be sure, Epicurus was a hedonist. And hedonism is the view that pleasure should be the goal of life. But pleasure, to Epicurus, did not imply physical indulgence. Rather, pleasure was the avoidance of pain and fear. Through this way of seeking pleasure, one also achieves the state of ataraxia, or tranquility.

How can there be too much pleasure in life? In the Epicurean view, excesses of physical pleasure inevitably lead to some kind of pain (e.g., too much alcohol leads to a hangover, binge-eating leads to a stomach ache, too much amplified music leads to tinnitus, etc.). All physical or sensual pleasures, therefore, need to be experienced in moderation. In a sense, moderation makes the good experiences even more enjoyable.

Epicurus himself wrote this pithy quatrain to describe the path to happiness:
God should not concern us.
Death is not to be feared.
What is good is easy to obtain.
What is bad is easily avoided.
The second line above is one of Epicurus's main points. The fear of death is the main fear to overcome. "Death," he wrote, "therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not."

So simple. So logical. At the same time, so hard to really embrace. Isn't fearing death built into us over eons of evolutionary time? Without the fear of death, for example, our species would never have feared predators. We'd never have gotten off the ground. So, to lose the fear of death is to turn against our very survival. But to lose the irrational or obsessive fear of death is different and is what I believe Epicurus was talking about.

His whole approach reminds me of the Middle Way of Buddhism. The Buddha taught that the extremes of asceticism on the one hand and indulgence on the other were both misdirected paths. Such extremes lead to attachment, which the Buddha's Second Noble Truth tells us is the cause of suffering. The term craving is interchangeable with attachment. For example, as an ascetic one can become obsessed with self-flagellation, self-denial, purity, holiness, or simply the release of endorphins. Any obsession is a form of craving.

What, then, does an attitude free from craving look like? Almost echoing Epicurus, the Dhammapada describes happiness this way:
Health is the greatest of gifts, contentedness the best riches; trust is the best of relationships, Nirvana the highest happiness.
In these terms, Buddhist Nirvana sounds much like Epicurus's concept of ataraxia. The goal is to remove fear, pain, and anxiety from your life rather than to add happiness and joy. Now, I know I am generalizing about Buddhism when, in fact, there are many different schools of thought about the Buddha's teachings, mostly grouped in either the Mahayana or Theravada divisions. But the upshot here is that Buddhism generally shares with Epicureanism a value on the avoidance of extreme states in life and the recognition of a path out of suffering.

Buddhism also shares a similar view on deities. Often, Epicurus is claimed as a proponent of atheism, since he had a well-developed theory of atomism to explain Nature. But he himself denied being an atheist, at least being an atheist per se. He was more of a deist. "First believe that God is a living being immortal and blessed," he wrote in his Letter to Menoeceus, "according to the notion of a god indicated by the common sense of mankind; and so believing, you shall not affirm of him anything that is foreign to his immortality or that is repugnant to his blessedness."

In the Epicurean worldview, however, the existence of God or of the gods is irrelevant to how life should be lived here and now. "For the utterances of the multitude about the gods are not true preconceptions but false assumptions...." In fact, if the gods were to worry about humans at all, then the gods would not be tranquil, and certainly they seek ataraxia themselves, don't they? (In my next post, I'll discuss Epicurus's famous and brilliant formulation of the problem of evil as it relates to the existence of God.)

Even though the Buddha's teaching did not involve worship of deities, he too did not deny their existence. Some Buddhist sects still revere deities or god-like beings today: Pure Land, Vajrayana, etc. But, like Epicurus, Buddha taught that what humans can do in a virtuous life is at least on par with what any god could achieve:
The gods even envy him whose senses, like horses well broken in by the driver, have been subdued, who is free from pride, and free from appetites.
Being free from appetites seems almost as hard as to be free from the fear of death. But these philosophers doubled-down on their simple yet impossible-seeming ideas, creating communities to live out their precepts. For Epicurus, it was The Garden. For the Buddha, it was the sangha. Neither of them were satisfied with mere ideas. In that spirit, we in the West can revisit Epicurus, a "Western Buddha," and his ancient non-religious wisdom tradition. If our food processors pave the way, so be it.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Feeling the Ulster Vibes

How things do come full circle! I have no belief whatsoever in The Secret or its so-called "law of attraction" or any other kind of metaphysical "karmic justice" in the universe. Nonetheless I do find amusement and pleasure in the fact that I mentioned Stiff Little Fingers in my interview with G.B.H., and then I posted a video for "Suspect Device" (from the great Inflammable Material album), and then a few days later, I get the opp to interview Jake Burns of SLF. Did I bring that on through some cosmic vibes? I prefer to say "it just so happens." (My mention of Sasquatch in recent posts hasn't garnered me a real-life sighting, for example. Oh, well.)

It just so happens, I've been listening to this band for about 30 years, ever since seeing a video for "Alternative Ulster" on a local late Friday night video show in 1980 (I think it was Video West: Backstage Pass). I recorded it from the T.V. speakers using a handheld cassette machine. I didn't even know it was "punk rock." It just sounded good to me. And it made me break open my encyclopedia to look up what "Ulster" meant. Listening to punk rock leads to historical inquiry! Don't forget it, kids.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Music for a Meditative Mood, Part 3

This had been up for a while, but then removed from YouTube. It's back, thankfully, but the output volume seems a little high (the tablas distort at times toward the beginning). Nonetheless, behold! I love the sound of all the other players echoing Ustad Bismillah Khan's solo on the shehnai.

Out Of The Great Northwest

Monday, May 17, 2010

Dick Dale and the Ominous Melody

God save the surf guitar. The first version I heard of "Misirlou" was done by Agent Orange (uniquely O.C. punk-mod-metal-powerpop-surf band, before they went just "plain" mod-powerpop), who called it "Miserlou" with an e. By whatever spelling, it's still a great tune in 2010. Such an ominous (and gorgeous) melody. Better than a thousand words, like a picture. Dick Dale rips it up here with some trebley and plunky soloing at the end.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Still One of My Favorite Metal Riffs Ever

RIP Ronnie James Dio. This song seems to be about depression:

When there's lightning, it always bring me down
Cause it's free and I see that it's me
Who's lost and never found
I cry for magic, I feel it dancing in the light
But it was cold, I lost my hold
To the shadows of the night

There's no sign of the morning coming
You've been left on your own
Like a rainbow in the dark

Do your demons, do they ever let you go?
When you've tried, do they hide deep inside
Is it someone that you know
You're a picture, just an image caught in time
We're a lie, you and I
We're words without a rhyme

There's no sign of the morning coming
You've been left on your own
Like a rainbow in the dark

When there's lightning, it always brings me down
Cause it's free and I see that it's me
Who's lost and never found
Feel the magic, feel it dancing in the air
But it's fear, and you'll hear
It calling you. Beware!

There's no sign of the morning coming
There's no sight of the day
You've been left on your own
Like a rainbow in the dark

Friday, May 14, 2010

Skronk Like You Mean It

Reminds me a lot of Massacre's Killing Time album (Bill Laswell - Fred Frith - Fred Maher), only with sax instead of guitar. It's like the ornery younger brother of Morphine (sax - drums - heavy bass). Dig it.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Listen to the "Melody-ah" with Leon Russell

Need more T.V. shows like the above. Watch the clip all the way to the end. Oh, and speaking of Leon Russell, the great thing about a Les Blank film is that it sticks with you, playing back again and again, in your mind, for days. Having seen "the film" some days ago, I think the back-pain was worth it.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

You Too Are Blind Without My Eyes

This song from the masterpiece Yesterday's Wine album:

I passed a home the other day
The yard was filled with kids at play
And on the sidewalk of this home
A little boy stood all alone
His smiling face was sweet and kind
But I could see the boy was blind
He listened to the children play
I bowed my head and there I prayed
Dear Lord above why must this be
And then these words came down to me
After all you're just a man
Aand it's not for you to understand
It's not for you to reason why
You too are blind without my eyes
So question not what I command
Cause it's not for you to understand

Now when I pray my prayer is one
I pray his will not mine be done
After all I'm just a man
And it's not for me to understand

"You Could Arrest Me"

In the Sacramento airport yesterday, I watched an interview with Willie Nelson that included this casually awesome admission:

Did he really get high on the roof of the White House during the Carter years? Yes.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

7 Screaming Swords and Swindles

Nothing against the fantasy genre, but I have always avoided reading Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné. Even (way) back when I was first reading Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea, and other kids in my school were reading the Elric series, I never gave it much thought.

Perhaps it was snobbery on my part. Perhaps I considered the Elric books dimestore stuff. I judged books by their covers, I guess, and the Elric covers were nothing but a glorified version of Marvel's Mighty Thor comics (which, come to think of it, I did read from time to time).

I now know that I may have been short-changing myself out of a small though awesome chapter of rock history. Apparently, Michael Moorcock not only penned lyrics for the Blue Öyster Cult (an honorific he shares with wordsmiths  Richard Meltzer and Patti Smith), but he also wrote the Great Rock n' Roll Swindle (the fictionalized account of the Sex Pistols' feud with Malcolm McLaren). Since the Swindle is rare and (way) out of my price range, I might now have to make up for lost time and delve into the he-man world of Elric.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

"When No One Can Tempt You With Heaven or Hell You'll Be a Lucky Man"

Thanks to Z Channel, this is how I've known Helen Mirren's name since I was a kid (McDowell already from A Clockwork Orange and Cat People). I dig this opening song and the way it was shot.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

"Body Glows, You Cling to Your Seat"

This must be why Stiff Little Fingers has been on my mind lately. My recent e-mail interview with Colin Abrahall of GBH was published in the Campus Circle, a weekly newspaper geared toward the collegiate to 35 year-old crowd. As with all writing for the newspaper (it's not a fanzine), I wrote for a general audience. But I also tried to remain true to the music and the band. Kind of a delicate balance to keep, really.

Nonetheless, it was fun to connect with someone who had been an influence on my younger days. The ringing in my ears, I believe, is in part due to my listening to GBH's "Give Me Fire" 7-inch over and over and over and over in 1982, through headphones, turned up to 10.

The remainder of the Pretenders story, by the way, involves the original drummer Wilf. He was asked to go and talk to one of the Girl Scouts who was blind. He made her happy by "pretending to be a Pretender." Ain't that the makings of a Hallmark Channel movie?

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Otherworldly Edward Hill

Above is the newly famous "Trolololo" internet meme (aka Edward Hill). I am so enamored of it, it is sick. His carefree manner, the strings of nonsense phonemes, the double-breasted suit, the golden earth-toned palette, the sparse setting, his shadowy intro, and the invisible audience all combine for one otherworldly experience. And the melody will haunt you. Forever.

It hit me at first like some segment from a forgotten Residents concert, approaching but never reaching the level of the truly grotesque. I was, however, actually relieved to learn this wasn't self-conscious art or a Paul McCarthy piece (as much as I like McCarthy). Edward Hill's techniques are pure. Maybe this was taped in the mid-70s on Russian TV, but for two and a half minutes, Hill luxuriates in non-space and non-time.


This music still stops me in my tracks. Neckties, sideburns, and dog collars:

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Church Music of Earth

This is the mighty Earth at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia (A.D. 2006?). If only Sunday with the Unitarians included more dream-music like this, I'd probably be there as we speak. To its credit, at my local UU church I once heard the organist/pianist play the music of Morris Tepper (whose genius guitar you may recall from late 70s Beefheart). Not bad, but also not really dream-music in the same way as this slow drone. Come to think of it, I saw Charlemagne Palestine play in a church last year. He composes for the church organ, after all. Read about that here, if you like.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Hirsute Semiotics

What is the meaning of a man's facial hair? Or the length of the hair on his head? In rock, it can make all the difference. In the 80s, for example, all I had to do was shave almost all my hair off, and punks would yell praise from their cars, while one van full of metal heads in Glendale, California yelled "Punk sucks!" and flipped me the spike-wristbanded bird. (Little did they know that, at that time, I was totally on board with Metallica and, for that matter, metal-ish hardcore Dr. Know and Battalion of Saints). I did feel a little tribal pride at that moment, I admit. But what two bands could have more iconic haircuts than the ever-transmogrifying Black Flag and the Beatles? (OK, Bowie could.)

A timeline that never ceases to give me a smile:

Someone should make such a timeline for these dudes:

NOTE: Now that I think about it, it probably wasn't Metallica but Motörhead that I was digging at the time, circa '83.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

"Who's Then Given a Gun and Pushed To the Fore"

He's Scottish, but I'm posting stuff here by Dick Gaughan for St. Patrick's Day because his songs "Song for Ireland" and "Erin Go Bragh" off Handful of Earth are so epic and beautiful. The whole album belongs in your record collection immediately. Unfortunately, I couldn't find suitable clips of those off th' youtube. Here's his amazing "Workers' Song" which I was privileged to see him play live once. Still gives me goosebumps to hear him sing: "We're expected to die for the land of our birth/When we've never owned one handful of earth."

NOTE: When I say "his" song, keep in mind it was written by another (Ed Pickford). But Dick really made it his own, as all great folksters can do. He did the same with Leon Rosselson's "The World Turned Upside Down" (which will always beat Billy Bragg's version, IMHO).

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"The Song I'm Humbled to Serve"

Ancestral Songs got me into the world of Daniel A.I.U. Higgs, especially the mix of far-out mystical acoustic songs and tape-manipulated noise with Jew's harp and banjo. Atomic Yggdrasil Tarot comes with an awesome book of blow-yr-mind acrostics, too. Working backwards, I've listened to some of his previous band Lungfish and liked it. He puts into rock the often missing element: poetry.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Heavy Metal Video Interlude, Part 3: "We Wear Leather! We Wear Spikes!"

Manowar "Gloves of Metal" (1983)

Must be seen to be believed. Here's a sample of the comments on the YouTube page: "awesome" and "true metal" and "this got me into viking metal." (Damn you, Thor! Now even I am kinda stuck on that guitar riff: da-da-DA, da-da-DA, da-da-DA, new-new-new-NEW-new-NEW.) Favorite video moment(s): the band riding through the land on horseback, the peasant fight by the fire pit, the giddy 80s girls jumping up and down in Manowar's audience, etc., etc.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

NoMeansSlow: "Forget Your Life"

By the time I got around to seeing Canuck punks NoMeansNo, they were the headliners at a re-fueled Urinals show sometime in the late 90s, and they were decidedly more grey than their youngster selves who appear on camera in the above video. I was nonetheless blown away by them live. That relentless booming bass and the hyperactive but dead-on drumming make for a compelling sound. I was thus taken aback when I stumbled on this clip of "Forget Your Life" (circa 1981) a couple of years ago, in which neither bass nor drums appear at all. It's slow and doomy. It's forlorn. But the synth freakouts and spare presentation betray an art-rock savvy beneath the hard sonic surface that also characterizes NoMeansNo's later albums. This is from, I believe, a Canadian public access show.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

D. Boon: 100 Flowers Fan

100 Flowers doing "Presence of Mind" at the Anti-Club (1983):

This clip is of a great song off of the 100 Flowers' one lp, re-released on the must-have CD 100 Years of Pulchritude around 1990, and soon to be re-re-released on Warning Label Records. Almost immediately after John Talley-Jones starts the groovy bass line, D. Boon starts pogoing around in front of the stage. What a guy! Sigh.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

More Music for a Meditative Mood

I saw Ali Akbar Khan in concert once. These clips are filmed well to give you a good angle on Khan's sarod, an instrument about as much used in Indian classical music as the sitar. A space-age sound from an old instrument. Thou art that!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Music for a Meditative Mood

Pakistani music maestros perform on Pakistani TV. I would like to know the year on this, probably mid-seventies. Why can't Good Morning America have these kinds of musical guests?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

And I Thought I Loved Gong

Perhaps you've seen the story the story of Sherman Hemsley and Daevid Allen (of Gong) posted elsewhere, on another blog. I first came across it when a friend e-mailed the story to me with a heading that read something like: "This is the weirdest rock anecdote I've ever read."

But if you have not read about the prog rock enthusiasm of Sherman Hemsley, famously known as the actor who played George Jefferson on the popular 70s T.V. show The Jeffersons, then I urge you...Nay! I beg you to read the tantalizing story linked below.

Myers, Mitch. "George Jefferson: World's Biggest Gong Fan?" Magnet. 5 March 2009.

Going back to my friend's e-mail, I was actually not astounded at all about Hemsley's love of prog rock. Back in the late 80s, I worked at Rene's Records on Melrose Ave. in L.A. One lazy afternoon, I was behind the counter when Mr. Hemsley came bounding up the steps into the shop, barefoot, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. One of the store's owners handed him a small stack of records. Hemsley paid him, they exchanged pleasantries, and then Hemsley dashed out the door and into his car, which I could see was parked in the red with its hazard lights flashing. Then he drove off.

The owner turned to me and asked with a smile, "Do you know who that was?" I did. He then explained that Hemsley came in from time to time and asked the owner to set aside anything by Yes, Marillion, and other prog bands. I never would have guessed.

But even with that knowledge, I was unprepared to learn about the fanaticism Hemsley had for Gong. For the record, I think it be would good idea today to have flying teapots all up and down the Sunset Strip. (Again, I beg you, read the story linked above.) Daevid Allen thought that was looney.

Anyway, I'd give my eye teeth to find a recording of "Festival of Dreams," the project Hemsley, a pianist, did with Jon Anderson of Yes. Oh, yes!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Steve Reich: Appreciations

This afternoon, I listened to The Desert Music (1984) by Steve Reich while falling asleep to take a nap on a work-free Presidents' Day. I hadn't heard it in over ten years but found it for a few bucks recently at one of the last (and best) used record stores in the Southland (Record Surplus on Pico).

One of the great triumphs of ECM Records — besides putting out some of Keith Jarrett's masterpieces of the 1970s and so much of Arvo Pärt's brilliant repertoire — was to have in its catalogue Reich's groundbreaking Music for 18 Musicians from 1978. Other notable Reich releases on ECM were his Octet/Music for a Large Ensemble/Violin Phase in 1980 and his setting of several Psalms in the 1982 recording of Tehillim, which was also one of the first — if not the first — of Reich's pieces coming out of his own immersion into Judaism. These three discs are probably my favorites, as they receive the most heavy rotation around the house, in the car, and in my head. Not too surprisingly, Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo has a similar penchant for the mesmerizing music of Reich. (Y'know, I always did like that Lee Ranaldo guy.)

The Desert Music, done for Elektra/Nonesuch, falls in the same aesthetic style as these other late 70s/early 80s works. It is relentlessly contrapuntal and pulsing. That's the Reich I love best, even more than his early tape-phase experiments like It's Gonna Rain and even more than some of his later works (with the exception of Daniel Variations in 2006, a haunting piece of music dedicated to the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl).

This is meditative but very active music, still stirring 26 years after it was composed (so much for my "nap"). I used to be more of a Philip Glass enthusiast in what I (and some others) perceived as a "rivalry" between these two New York minimalists. I remember even getting into something of an argument with someone over that non-issue. I think I even made the dubious claim that Glass's music was somehow more "emotional." (Funny enough, I first learned of Steve Reich in the liner notes of the Phil Glas/Ravi Shankar album Passages.) Now I don't take sides in such a pointless debate; I love 'em both. But I will say that it has been a while since I've spun Phil Glass on the turntable/CD player/iPod. Steve Reich has found his way to these places quite frequently and quite recently. For the uninitiated, The Desert Music is about as good a place to start as Music for 18 Musicians. Other great places to start:
  • Four Organs (1970)
  • Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (1973)
  • Sextet/Six Marimbas (1986)
  • Different Trains (w/ Kronos Quartet) (1988)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Heavy Metal Video Interlude, Part 2: "I Am The Master of The Enchanted Tune"

Candlemass "Bewitched" (1987)

Let me guide you through: The first minute and a half of this video is kind of Sergio Leone-esque for a rock video. So far, so good. At 1:30 lead singer Messiah Marcolin clambers out of the coffin, and the video really takes off. For the next few minutes, there are shots of him dancing and lip syncing that linger just a few seconds too long for comfort, but it is mesmerizing. And there are shots of live performances in which Marcolin does this wild stomping dance that I can only describe as a cross between MC5's Rob Tyner and one of the monsters from War of the Gargantuas (my favorite of all the Toho Company monster movies). But nothing quite prepares you for the moment at 5:50 when you are treated to something reminiscent of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video, but in a charmingly low-budget Swedish metal kind of way. Favorite video moment(s): All of the above.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Orange Crush in the Morning

Another re-post. Riposte? Enjoy post:

Eureka! Here's Slovenly playing "Orange Crush" off After the Original Style at the Anti-Club in 1987. A rare gem.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Heavy Metal Video Interlude, Part 1: "Grandmaaaaaaaa!"

King Diamond's "Welcome Home" (1988)

Is that the voice of King Diamond, or is that just my tinnitus acting up again? Go to the YouTube page for the full lyrics and then ask yourself the obligatory "What the...?" Favorite video moment: the ol' K.D. hamming-it-up in the picture frame on the staircase as the bow-tied boy runs to his "Grandmaaaaaaa!"

Friday, February 5, 2010

Cotton Candy: The Gold Standard of Rock 'n' Roll Narrative Movies

If ever a narrative film about a band inspired me to play rock 'n' roll, it wasn't Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park (no way!) or Magical Mystery Tour (as good as that is). It was Cotton Candy (dir. Ron Howard, 1978). This is the story of a struggling high school band that existed as a kind of chump-rock salute to REO Speedwagon and The Carpenters. Actor Charles Martin Smith actually sang these songs, I think. Did he write them, too? Was there ever a soundtrack lp released? Get Teen Beat Records on the line pronto! The song "Starship" rules (if that's the song's name).

The most memorable performance in this flick, however, wasn't Smith or even the too-cool-for-school send-up of "I Shot the Sheriff" done by our heroes' rival band, Rapid Fire. It was Clint Howard as the manic band-manager Corky, with his bow-tie and touring-cap a-floppin'. I owe it all to one Papa Jon for turning me on to this masterpiece of a rock 'n' roll saga back in the murky yesteryears. Alas, I believe only part of this movie is available on the "you tube," and no one has had the taste to release it on DVD for the hungry masses. Enjoy what you can:

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Ricky Jay: American Treasure

My wife and I got out of the house the other night to go see Ricky Jay perform his Rogue's Gallery show at the Geffen Playhouse. Directed by David Mamet (in whose films we were first introduced to the incredible Mr. Jay), the stage show is Jay's largely improvised audio-visual tour through artifacts in his personal collection of playbills, fliers, posters, and photos related to unusual and esoteric entertainment in the U.S. and Europe. Magicians play a large role, but so do figures like Harry Kahne, the early 20th century "multiple mental marvel", and Mathias Buchinger, the 17th and 18th century polymath and performer who was nearly limbless and only 29 inches tall.

Each artifact leads Jay into an anecdote, a magic trick, a joke, an historical yarn, a video clip, or all of the above. I submit he is a national treasure and should receive some corresponding honor, because he is keeping alive a tradition of entertainment that is as potent now as it was a hundred years ago or more. It cannot be duplicated with CGI or other elaborate technical effects. Special effects would spoil the magic, literally.

It's live, mind-boggling, witty, and literary entertainment. Movies have sapped people's attention for this kind of performance, which is an ironic bookend for my week in which I also saw and was dazzled by Avatar. I guess I'm a walking contradiction. But I don't claim James Cameron as a national treasure. That's the difference.

A bit of celebrity gossip: I saw Teller attending the show. And I saw him speak. And I heard the slightest muffled tone when his lips moved, but he was about six feet away from me. Side note: I had a theory for many, many years that Teller was one of the Residents. He plays bass on a Penn & Teller video from the 80s that sounds exactly like the bass sound on The Commercial Album; he doesn't speak as part of his act; and I know Penn Jillette knows The Residents (or a least boasts that he does). They're in the same milieu. Alas, I shared my theory with a friend "in the know" who lauded the novelty of my theory, but also disabused me of it. Perhaps Teller sat in on Residents recordings, but he was no Resident, if you catch my drift.

And, now, feast your eyes and mind on the art of Ricky Jay:

And the book Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women is as great as he makes it sound (on Arsenio Hall!):